In the only contested race for the Hood River County Board of Commissioners this primary election, two candidates staked their case Tuesday at a voter forum.
Mike Oates and Rich McBride took turns fielding questions about steps they’d take as county chair.
The primary election forum also featured candidates for Oregon Senate District 26 and state House of Representatives District 52. The event at Columbia Center for the Arts was sponsored by Hood River Valley Residents Committee, Hood River League of Women Voters, and Livable Hood River.
McBride, a real estate broker at Copper West Properties, has served as a county commissioner since January 2017 and previously served on the Hood River Port Commission from 2011-2018. Before that, he was on the city and port budget committees.
Oates, an Odell orchardist, has served on the county planning commission, Hood River County School Board and budget committee, financial advisory committee, the initial board for Hood River County Library District, and the Hood River County Education Foundation, as well as several industry boards.
Both candidates named the budget as Hood River County’s top issue — the county faces a roughly $1.4 million shortfall.
Oates said, “(When) I first decided to run for this, I started to do my homework and since I found out what the budget situation was, I knew exactly where I had to spend all my time.
“We can’t do all the other things we need to do if we’re not properly funded. We’ve got to come up with a budget that is sustainable, that is fair and is going to take us into the future. That’s number one. I’ve got other ideas that are things I’d like to do, but until we get that we’ve got to work on the budget.”
McBride said, “We are … probably 10 years behind the eight-ball. We have been watching reserves and revenues decrease, and have not come to the public and asked them for help.
“I believe that we need to study the problem, that we need to educate the public about that problem and that we need to ask for help from the community. We cannot continue to move forward and fund the services that we have — 24-hour sheriff’s service, search and rescue that we do — and keeping up our buildings and rolling stock on the funds that we have now.”
On land use laws, both candidates agreed on their value. McBride said he would keep supporting state guidelines to protect resource lands from housing development. Oates supported land use planning as a “necessity” because of conflicts between uses, referencing his time serving when the planning commission set the Hood River urban growth boundary.
Grace Skakel with Hood River Valley High School’s Girl Up program asked the candidates about creating safe bicycle routes. Both speakers pledged it was a matter worthy of study and consideration.
Oates, 66, said he is a lifelong local resident who will focus on livability, affordability and sustainability.
When he decided to run, “I wanted to make sure we had the infrastructure necessary to keep our community vibrant and livable and safe.”
On affordability, Oates said, “If you work in Hood River County you should be able to afford to live here so that’s going to take some real tough decisions.”
On sustainability, “we need a revenue source that can sustain us and get us into a future.
“When we look at these revenue sources, we need to make sure they’re fair; are we getting it from everybody that is involved? Right now, we have a lot of problems in our revenue that we’re not getting hardly anything from the tourists.
“Well, that puts a big burden on our infrastructure, especially our sheriff’s department and our search and rescue, so we need to come up with a revenue source that can go towards the tourists and get some of (those) funds.
“We really need to do something because we’ve lost our timber receipts, we’re not getting the money from the tourists that we need, and as you all know any public employee agency has a problem with PERS (Public Employment Retirement System), which is unavoidable.”
He brought up the possibility of a local option levy for public safety, which “would go out for three or five years and then the community could decide whether it was fair and whether or not we were doing our job with those funds — and then they could decide whether to re-up it or not.”
McBride, 60, wants to encourage change amid a board he said does not have a “people problem” but instead a “culture problem.”
“In order to change directions, the boat needs to rock a little. And that is what I hope to do. Since getting my position at the table I’ve accepted every responsibility that has been offered. I have tried to insert differing viewpoints and have spoken out when if felt we needed to change our direction.
“My fellow commissioners have responded to this new energy and have begun to give more energy to their positions. I hope to ask even more of my commissioners if I am elected chair, as I am giving more of myself; I believe that is what leadership is.
“The county commission has to face our budget realities with something other than a hatchet. I am working hard with Commissioner (Karen) Joplin to develop a plan to study our long-term needs.
“I’ve been a commercial fisherman in Alaska, an educator, a carpenter, and a business owner, all very interesting experiences that I learned from. I bring all this experience to my county position and it serves me well as commissioner. But at 60 years old I can say to you that my public service is the most important work of my life. And I’m giving it all I’ve got.
“The choice you have is whether we should continue to follow the path we have been on and elect another upstanding orchardist to lead our county, or to choose a different path with me, a newcomer with a diverse background, to bring balance to the board.”
The current county chair, Ron Rivers, will retire from the board when his term expires in December. Two other commissioners are unopposed in seeking re-election, Karen Joplin and Bob Benton.